For this panel on lightness, I have decided—after some rather heavy or weighty deliberations—to look at two older poems of mine, one entitled “The Aftermath,” from my first poetry collection Water Song. The other is a poem entitled “To Malcolm X On His Second Coming,” which was published in the spring 1999 issue of African American Review but which is not in any of my books. In looking at these two poems I found myself drawn to the idea of “place in poetry,” which is to say the actual place that serves sometimes as the site of a poem for me as well as what place becomes in memory. There is the actual place, the place as construed in time, and the place as it varies with the accumulation of time and reflection. In the instance of these two poems, place also serves as the site of the past as the intersection of personal and cultural history. In that intersection, I have found the portal to what I experience as lightness, the chance to deepen my own humanity.
In the 1950’s and 60‘s, the border between black and white neighbors was the broad space of Baltimore Cemetery for most of the stretch of Sinclair Lane. As a child I could look out at the glistening headstones from my bedroom window. Where the cemetery ends there is an overpass that forms a short tunnel for the freight trains I could hear at night, and just on the other side of that overpass there was Erdman Shopping Center, a place where black met white. The racial violence of the 60’s came home to us as children when we went to the shopping center to buy toys from Murphy’s Five & Dime. We walked home with bottles and bricks breaking and thumping behind us. One day a friend was caught alone in the space of the border and beaten badly.
However, time moved on, and the real estate practices that enforced segregation while profiting from it once again continued to move the borders between black and white so that in the 1980’s, we lived in the white neighborhoods of the same working class houses that whites once owned. Men like my father, black men who retired from lives spent in the steel mills and other industrial jobs, gathered there to talk to each other, sometimes as they sat in their cars carryong on conversation from window to window while they waited to make extra money as hackers, or unlicensed private taxis.
“The Aftermath” takes this shopping center as the actual place for black retirees, while the retiree gathering spot for white workers was one I had to imagine. I wrote the poem in 1982, the year of my 31st birthday. After my mother passed away that summer my father retired. He was 60 years old, and as I prepare this presentation I am in the year of my 62nd birthday and know the limitations of the body that my father mentioned and which I thought were his indulgence of his love of storytelling and hyperbole. But the limitations are true, just as are the limitations of being young. The realization of this is what I would rather think of as lightness, as sometimes the realization of aging makes for a heaviness.
The retired men speak, and in their speech they make light of being older men. They tease each other into testing the limits of reality, the black men in their retiree gathering space and the white men in theirs. The connections between these groups of men in the poem are made over and at the expense of the objectified female body. In the second stanza the black men joke about their waning sexual vigor while eyeing young women and girls who pass by them.
Now they pass their waiting time in huddles,
conspiring to cheat death with enthusiasm and courage,
around an abandoned lot cluttered with old cars,
changing this part and that one for this new one,
whistling and gesturing to young women and girls,
dropping wads of money and credit cards to entice.
“ ‘Lil Bit. You would have a stroke behind that young stuff.
Your best bet is to lay your ass in the shade and sleep.”
Such was the vernacular as I lived it and knew it from the southern patriarchs who were my elders in my family and who worked in Baltimore’s industrial jobs. Had I been in active recovery from having been abused as a child I might have rendered this differently, but the more important matter is that I see now that there were other textures inside this world.
Lightness, as I see it, occurs in the fact of my recognition such that I can see how the hoped for racial lightness in the poem is both scored and subverted by gender trauma, and had I the chance to look even deeper at the men I knew at that point in my life I might have seen the scars of some of them from their own victimization by men, that same sex betrayal. The white men in the poem flirt with the young women and girls and joke as well, but when it comes to race they are the primary actors in the indulgence of white supremacy. I encapsulate all the moments of white racism I experienced with white coworkers in one refrain at the end of the third stanza.
“When they hired the niggers the country fell apart.”
The poem progresses to where the two groups of men begin to socialize together at the end, drawing as I did on the story of how my father and one of his white coworkers grew so close together over the years that they took turns driving each other to work. The Bethlehem steel mill declined to where it was fraction of what it once was and the roads to Sparrows Point were nowhere near as busy as they were in years past.
As a young poet I was trying to extend bright moments in America’s ongoing drama of race and racism, to borrow from the term as used by jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk. These bright moments were stories I knew, friendships I made with white coworkers over the years and that I watched form between other workers from different places in the space of race in this country. They were bight moments like the ones my father related to me from his beginnings in the steel mill when segregation marked and separated to extremes to where, some years later, the same men who never spoke to each other became friends. There were those things and the contradictions, such as white coworkers who would not speak to me outside of the job.
The second poem is “To Malcolm X On His Second Coming.” In the works for almost two decades, I have always thought it was about the role of Islam in configuring my response to the betrayals of race and racism. The Nation of Islam was a living presence in Baltimore. I was aware of the Nation before I was aware of Malcolm X. I listened to Elijah Muhammad on my portable radio, and it was appealing to me, even as I was cultivating my pious leanings while regularly attending the family Baptist church. If my mother saw me listening she would make me turn off the radio. She saw their rhetoric as hatred. Later I would understand that piety was rooted in a rage resulting from having been abused by a family member.
She said it was the message of evil, and the Black Muslims said the white man was the Devil. Enslaved African Americans were thought to be morally deficient and predisposed to criminality by slaveholders, while blacks looked at whites and wondered why God allowed such an insidious thing as slavery to not only exist but to be the basis for defining the good from the perspective of people who broken basic laws of humanity.
On North Avenue the Black Muslims had a carry-out restaurant two blocks from Clifton Park, where we sometimes went for picnics on Sunday afternoons. In this restaurant you could buy fried fish sandwiches and the famous bean pies that were part of the brand of the Nation’s cuisine. Elijah Muhammad preached that black people should eat to live and not live to eat. The newspaper of the Nation was The Final Call, and it was sold by men in suits and bow ties who always displayed impeccable manners in a formal English laid over the urban vernacular. People in the Nation of Islam had a distinct way of being, as if they were a culture inside a culture, and their defiance spoke to me out of that store on North Avenue and into parts of me that were damaged in ways I could not articulate. The actual geographic place of the poem inspired me. In that way I know the soul as place.
The Nation of Islam with its record of salvaging the lives of incarcerated black men formed an alternate masculine model for many young black men in the 1960’s, or at least we thought so. When I was old enough to drive, I began the wayward behavior my mother and her peers described as “going for bad.” Adolescent confusion for me meant being bad in order to break the apron strings.
Beginning with Malcolm X emerging from his grave, the poem progresses to show him surveying the landscape of Black America and being so disheartened that he begins to grieve deeply for Elijah Muhammad, the hero he later criticized for his affairs with young women prior to leaving the organization and forming his own, influenced as he was by his trip to Mecca where he was able to observe and participate in more orthodox Islam.
His surveying of the landscape in the poem is counterbalanced by a narrative of a slave rebellion foiled by the betrayal of a young black girl who is herself the daughter of the man who owned her and has become the child mistress of her master, who is, therefore, a pedophile. The men she betrayed have been lynched, their bodies cut into pieces. From the grave the leader questions her.
“Liza, where your mind, chile?”
Mind as referenced in the poem is the residence of an authentic self, a black consciousness that has determined its healthy relationship to white supremacy. Again, as in “The Aftermath,” the determinations of men struggling with each other are negotiated over the female body, although this time the male body is appropriated by power of white dominance.
When I made final revisions to the poem in 1998 and submitted it to the African American Review, I had begun working on my recovery as an incest survivor for a few years. Little by little I would be able to draw a new cartography for the sources of my anger and see this poem I have always called my credo as a place built out of self-revelations. It is as if the poem is a major station in the network of illumination known as Indra’s Net in Hinduism and Buddhism, the connectedness of lightness that occurs when a series of self revelations or moments of clarity lead from one to another so that the dim consciousness is filled with light. The light of sight alleviates the weight of experience and trauma on the soul. The process itself is lightness producing lightness. Place is being and becoming, and being and becoming are place.
Several years ago some letters written by Malcolm X when he was a child showed him to be a nerdy and sensitive little boy. When I heard this news, I had uncovered my own child trauma and was in recovery, so I could not help but see the transformation of that little boy into the Malcolm X we knew or thought we knew as a transformation scored by more trauma than he related to Alex Haley, who compiled his autobiography. I was deeply involved in the project of repairing the damaged child of my own memory, so I began to see the poem differently. This is not to say America’s problems were obviated by my realizations about the most personal damage done to me as a child in relation to what I could now imagine happened to my hero. However, I was able to see those troubles differently.
Lightness as I have considered it in looking back over these poems and others of mine in recent years has come to mean the chance to shift the composition of the way things weigh on me such that there is a summary of that weight that feels lighter because it allows me to have another kind of hope. Personal trauma such as incest is universal, and the work of recovery from it brings the chance to share that work with people who are not black or black people who are not working class. I am allowed the gift of seeing another harder evidence of humanity, harder evidence that is itself lightness, the essence of which is light itself, the thing that behaves according to both the particle and wave theories of physics, which is to say it is profound and utterly without weight, the fact of which should encourage us to let go of gravity as much as we possibly can. What we see is what we imagine, and, together, what we imagine is our humanity.